Tuesday, March 01, 2005

I Hate Venice

Copyright 2005 by s. light
This may not be reprinted without the author's permission.

I don’t remember what day it was, other than the day after the day before. This one just found us in Venice. Two weeks already we’d been crossing Europe—Paris, Barcelona, Florence, Rome—two weeks that had found us, for the first time ever, as the outsiders. Getting by on a semi-recognizable word here or the rudeness (because we were Americans) of strangers there. All the time knowing we didn’t speak any of the languages and there wasn’t any tour guide to help (which was the way we wanted it, but, still…).

It was a beautiful day, warm with blue skies and no hint of any putrid smell as we’d been warned to expect. Venice was grateful for the weather because it cannot exist without tourists, and that day we were in the thousands. The two of us took the train in from Padua, where we were staying, and then a waterbus, to the most popular piazza in town—San Marco. If, like me, you know your annoying tv commercials, and remember the IBM ad where the guy is in a pigeon-filled plaza doing some day-trading using a screen projected onto a small lens in front of his eye while giving verbal commands, and then takes a call with the same device, then you’ve seen where we were. And like almost every other tourist-worthy sight we’d visited, the church of San Marco was under construction, making it the distraction to the sight of thousands of pigeons fluttering about the square, trying to get some feed from the hands of anyone who’d buy it from the vendors, instead of the pigeons being the distraction to the church.

Now, besides the pigeons, tourists, and vendors of bird feed and postcards, there were tons of tour groups of Italian teenagers, milling around or buying things or laughing or talking on their cell phones or ignoring their chaperones. It must have been some kind of spring break, because they’d been around everywhere, especially in Rome, where they would get drunk and sing karaoke, because apparently, Cher’s own version of “I Believe” wasn’t bad enough. But I digress…The thing to know about Italian teenagers, specifically the boys, was that the hottest clothing trend of the moment were sweatsuits with breakaway pants. Any color was acceptable (red and green were understandably big) and there were usually stripes to help with the garishness. The Venetian vendors decided to help complete the ensemble by selling big, floppy jester hats, also in garish colors. I’ve always been able to spot Europeans vacationing here in the States by their fashion sense. It’s just a little bit off—a logo too big, an extra splash of color. Here in Venice, I was at ground zero, the nexus of Eurostyle.

We watched as a group of boys gathered in a circle, checking out the things that they thought they were cool for buying. Dressed in their sweatsuits, a couple of new jester hats (or a variation thereof), were put upon a head or two. It was too much; we looked at each other and rolled our eyes. As much credit as we tried to give, as open-minded as we tried to be, this sight was just too much so we observed it with typical American superiority, commenting on it like it was “The Real World: San Francisco”.

A few steps behind this group was another boy. He was still chubby with baby fat, not yet having hit puberty like the others. Coke-bottle glasses and a crew cut complemented the chipmunk cheeks to give us a real-life Piggy from Lord of the Flies. His sweatsuit was rainbow-colored, the pants maybe a half-size too big. From a plastic bag, he pulled out his own jester hat, with bells at the end, and put it on.

In trying to clear my conscience a thousand times since the incident, I’ve replayed the following scene over and over in my head, but I still don’t know which way is right. And it sucks even more, because my brain is sponge-like for facts and memories, but my attention in this instance was focused on composing a blasé, postcard-style picture, and not on what was happening around me.

I pointed out the boy to my Better Half as he walked near us, saying something to the effect of, “Check out this loser.” We laughed at him to ourselves and heard the other boys laughing, as they had been doing since we first saw them. I turned back to the church and tried to compose my blasé, postcard-style picture. The (non-)Mrs. got my attention and motioned in the direction of the boy. He was standing alone, ignored (still) by the other boys, his jester hat now in his hand, his shoulders slumped and his head bowed. She would later tell me of watching him remove the hat, slowly, sadly, that it was like watching a poem take place in front of her.
“Do you think he heard us?” she asked me.
“No way, it’s too loud here, and I was practically whispering in your ear. Besides, you can tell those guys are all popular and shit. They probably made fun of him or something,” I answered quickly.
“Are you sure?” she asked, for she was not convinced.

The boy was standing maybe ten feet away from us with the other boys another ten feet away. He would shift our way, and then, theirs. It was like this for about five minutes. Near us, then them. The jester hat went back in the plastic bag. His eyes were big and sad, the image magnified by his thick glasses, but he never looked directly at us, just at the ground a few feet away.

And then, I remembered the one thing that shot right through the heart of my theory. English. We ran into more Europeans who could speak it than couldn’t; it was like a 5:1 ratio. Maybe he had understood me. But there was noise all around us and I wasn’t being loud. Or was I? There was noise all around us. Maybe I had raised my voice to be heard above the din and it was just a little too loud. No, it was the other boys. It had to be. Right?

I recognized the dynamic of the group. The clique vs. the non-clique. The many against the one. I recognized it, all right. I was there. Maybe not to such an extreme, but it was more or less the same. Picking teams for kickball or whatever, the dread burning my stomach like an ulcer, as it got down to just a few of us, and then, just me. The fads that I would pick up on too late. The embarrassment from having to go shopping with my mom (“Come out and show me”). No glasses when I was his age, but buckteeth made up for it, and the baby fat never really went away. Divorced parents meant every other weekend at my dad’s, who would take me to school on Monday, where I would often forget my bag, only to come in the next morning to find my underwear tacked onto the bulletin board and I had to laugh with the others to pretend it wasn’t mine and try and save face. I’d never been the outsider before? Tell me when I wasn’t.

I honestly don’t know if it was the other boys or us who crushed this kid into the ground. This kid who just wanted to be accepted, one of the gang. Cool like you. But it didn’t really matter anymore. As much as I tried to play it down, to lay the blame at the feet of the other boys, whether it was their fault or not, I had said something that somewhere had probably been said about me. And I couldn’t take it back.

We stayed in the piazza, sick with guilt, ashamed to leave, embarrassed to stay. Should we say something to him? (What?) Apologize. But what if it had been the other boys? Why crush him even more with the knowledge that total strangers from another country were making fun of him, too?

Mired in our own personal, petty, selfish turmoil, we didn’t notice our sad hero walk over to a vendor and buy a bag of feed. We did see him sit down on a bench and begin to feed the pigeons, scattering a handful onto the ground at his feet where the birds gobbled it up in near-record time. Again, at his feet. And then the birds were jumping onto the bench, and then him, greedy, jonesing for the feed like the addicts they were, coming ever closer, until finally, they were eating it right out of his hands. A little life crept back into his face. And then a family began to gather around him (maybe it was his, maybe not) and he lit up more. When the mother pulled out her camera to take a picture, he was at least smiling on the outside.

Relieved that he would leave the piazza that day with at least one good memory, that just maybe would erase the pain from a few minutes earlier, we made our exit into the maze that is Venice—jostling tourists, Maestre glass, overpriced gondola rides, postcards and trinkets, and pizza at a joint where “Italian sausage” translates to “hot dog.” We should have stayed in the hotel room and made love until lunch when we could have walked to the piazza in front of the church beside our hotel, where there was an equally bad pizza place. And though this piazza was smaller than San Marco, it, too, was filled with pigeons and feed-selling vendors. And though this church was also under construction, it did contain inside, a saint’s tongue, if nothing else. Then I could have written about all of that, and not the fact that this nerd insulted a fellow brother.

I know. Somebody took his picture. He was smiling. Great.

I’m still an asshole.


At 4/25/2011 07:16:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate Venice too!!
But as someone who lives in Europe, I can tell you that almost everyone (especially people under the age of 40) can understand a decent amount of English.
People like you are the reason why American tourists have such a bad reputation here. Arrogant, rude, judgemental, with an over-inflated sense of self-importance. I'm American actually, and it annoyed me so much that when I first moved here, people grouped me together with the likes of you.
I hope you never come back.

At 4/25/2011 12:04:00 PM, Blogger stephen said...

Dear Anonymous,

Your attempt at trolling merits you a 4 out of a possible 10. In typical anonymous internet fashion you have generalized my personality based on one piece of writing, which you may have read but did not comprehend. I wish I gave more of a shit about your comment but I don't, other than this closing: go fuck yourself.


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